Whatever Happened to Human Rights?

Review: Samuel Moyn, ‘Christian Human Rights’

Pope Pius XII / Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2010, a headline hit the news wires that caused something of a stir: "Brussels Declares Vacation Time a Human Right," blared one item. Some ambitious European technocrat had decided that everybody, simply by being human, has an inalienable right to jet off to Mallorca and sit on the beach for weeks—regardless of his ability to pay for it.

People like this are the reason that "human rights" has become a joke in many circles. The phrase can mean almost anything: maybe it means nothing.

Into this void steps Samuel Moyn with his new book, Christian Human Rights. The notion of human rights was not originally an ever-expandable list of discrete entitlements. According to Moyn, human rights were originally an effort by conservative Christians to reformulate their approach to politics during and after the ideological conflicts of the first half of the 20th century.

The concept of "rights" tends to be associated with the great revolutions in the 18th century and their key documents, in particular the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. While the American Revolution was generally friendly to religion, the French Revolution certainly wasn’t. The experience in France made the Roman Catholic Church very suspicious of any talk of "rights."

This distrust lasted through the 19th century and well into the 20th century, and leading up to World War II, the whole world began to see the unsettling consequences of political liberalism playing out in world affairs. Liberalism emphasizes individual freedom and personal happiness without committing its adherents to the recognition of transcendent meaning or adherence to an overarching moral framework. As a result, communities organized around liberal values alone are easy prey for demagogues—witness the rise of fascism in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

While overtly atheistic communism was anathema to Christians, classical liberalism seemed like a non-starter to many Christians around 1935; but its alternatives, especially "authoritarian corporatism" or "outright fascism," were really no better—deification of the state does not leave much room for the church, and Hitler was not much of a friend of religion, either. The goal for Christians was a political order that preserved the possibility of a moral community without empowering an authority that would then crush the church.

The idea of "human dignity" seems nearly ubiquitous today, but Moyn argues that it was not really discussed prior to the run up to World War II, and it was certainly not codified in any state’s constitution until Ireland did so in 1937. Pope Pius XI and then Pius the XII both adopted the language of the dignity of individual people throughout the war, a marked shift for the church that had so adamantly opposed any notion of rights and the consequent emphasis on the individual:

By late wartime, with authoritarian corporatism (or outright fascism) both outmoded, dignity, for Pius XII, implied conservative democracy to keep communist or even liberal politics at bay and to make Christian moral norms central. "The holy story of Christmas proclaims this inviolable dignity of man with a vigor and authority that cannot be gainsaid—an authority and vigor that infinitely transcends that which all possible declarations of the rights of man could achieve," the pope observed. True Christian democracy would protect human dignity, he warned. False democracy, by contrast, would sacrifice it on the profane altar of secularism, materialism, and relativism, subordinating the natural law and common good to the whims of the masses, exaggerating defensible liberty into appetitive license, and accelerating acceptable equality into colorless uniformity—all travesties of human dignity rather than its enthronement.

This turn to the dignity of man among Christians was the first big step in creating the idea of "human rights," Moyn argues—a turn that is still visible in the very first line of the United Nations’ Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

With this turn to the dignity of the individual came an effort among conservatives to define what this person with dignity was, and in turn to assign this person "human rights." "Forgotten now, the spiritual and often explicitly religious philosophy of the human person was the conceptual means through which continental Europe initially incorporated human rights," Moyn writes. This effort came primarily through Christians who sought to "split the difference" with the idea of human rights grounded in human dignity "between self and collective." A moral community, anchored by the church, is only possible when the state is limited enough that it cannot squash smaller local communities in a totalitarian drive.

Moyn sees in the Christian Democratic parties that ruled most of Europe for much of the post-war period the best indicator of the triumph of this religiously founded vision for political society. It was Christians who constructed the post-war order in Europe, with human rights at the heart. Human rights were not an expansive list then of individual entitlements—rather they imposed specific moral constraints, setting out the kind of environment in which people can truly thrive.

How then did we get from a Christian community to our modern notion of human rights today? "The answer is straightforward," writes Moyn: "to a wholly remarkable and unanticipated extent, Western European Christianity collapsed."

The effect of this collapse seems to be twofold. First, the whole concept of "human rights" has replaced the faith that originally undergirded it as a religion for many people. Amnesty International, whose goal is to expand human rights worldwide, even lights candles for the suffering, an eerily quasi-religious practice. Second, because human rights has lost this foundation, it has lost its limits, allowing a week at the beach to become a "human right." "If this faith"—that is the new religion of human rights— "has prophets, they write reports and file lawsuits, and so enjoy only the charisma of the bureaucrat," Moyn writes.

By drawing readers’ attention to the Christian origins of the idea of human rights, however, Moyn ultimately points not to the enduring significance of human rights but of Christianity. The fact that Christianity has been used to bolster many different kinds of regimes—monarchy, authoritarianism, and now democracy—while not losing its core doctrines shows not a weakness at the heart of the faith but rather a robustness.

By reaching into the deepest parts of the human experience, the Christian faith serves as a corrective to the shallow ideologies that consume world affairs from time to time. That same faith, Christian Human Rights implies, will likely correct the shallowness of the present human-rights movement that it helped birth.